Friday, March 6, 2009

Are knit ties far behind?

Every business article produced these days mentions something like “the lowest since 1982” or “worst since 1983.”

The last was from today, as it’s been announced that unemployment is its highest since 1983. I remember those days well. I had graduated high school the year before with no prospects for college, believing the chatter all around that I was "lucky to have a job.”

So I worked third shift in a supermarket, stocking cans of beans from midnight to 8. I should have felt lucky, but didn’t.

Point is, these days again folks are fortunate to have a job, and more fortunate to have a career in which they can grow. Those career paths still exist, even if their roads are showing potholes and detours.

It’s even true for journalism. This field and many others are going to change and demand different ways of thinking and acting from its remaining adherents. But most embattled industries aren’t going away.

The larger point is that as bad as the early ‘80s were, 2009 could be worse. Pop music isn’t as bad (remember “Safety Dance” and “Flashdance”? Don’t get me started.). Interest rates remain at rock-bottom. Squared knit ties (guys) and leg warmers (ladies) are as out as zoot suits.

Also gone from those days is a sense of the inevitable decline of America. We’ve been down this road before. Few today think that we’re consigned to the ash heap of history. Though we don’t know how long the current troubles will last, we have confidence they’ll bottom out and our rebound will begin.

Americans continue to show a resilience and optimism that as bad as things are, they’ll get better. Tough times come, but they also go.

Happy days (not the TV show, which was another 80s casualty) will be here again. Our country will be changed when the recovery comes, but perhaps not worse off.

Another relic of the 1980s might stay with us as we turn our eyes upward to the cross, source of hope in dark, uncertain times: “Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive.”

Glimpsing Tooker's world

A recent 60-degree day invited me out for a midday walk in center city. I had seen an ad in the Catholic Standard & Times for an art exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

I had never heard of the artist George Tooker, but the poster featured his painting “Subway” and that was so striking, I wandered over to the museum.

The exhibit was more than worth the price of admission. Organized mostly in chronological fashion, the paintings tell the artist’s story from an early self-portrait through the period where he made his significant mark on the art world.

Tooker uses an ancient technique called egg tempera (you can tell I never studied art in school), so his paintings seem to project light from the canvas. The effect is astonishing.

From “Subway” placed midway through the exhibit, I was not surprised to find similar works of social commentary. Tooker amply explored themes such as alienation, totalitarian fear and urban isolation especially in the late 1940 through the ‘50s. Those images burn themselves into one’s mind and challenge us to think about the culture and society of the time in which they were created, and our own.

But what really surprised me was Tooker’s volume of work from the last 30 years. He had already made a name for himself in the 1950s as a young man. In the 1960s he became involved in the civil rights movement with other artist friends.

After his homosexual partner died in 1975, Tooker became introspective. To deal with his grief, he turned to religion: not the Episcopalian church of his birth, but to the Catholic Church. In 1976, he converted to Catholicism.

Ever since, his works reflect not only the beauty of the human person, but people in relationship. Gone (mostly) were the disturbing images of fear, paranoia and alienation in harsh, urban landscapes. They’d been succeeded by scenes of people in warmer light -- in a sense, from broken and disconnected individuals to a harmonious, even redeemed, humanity.

While the exhibit’s companion book is pricier than admission, it reveals more of Tooker’s emerging spirituality of his later period. Particularly remarkable are the commissions of sacred art for his parish church in Vermont.

The Stations of the Cross and a triptych depicting the seven sacraments accurately express orthodox Catholic theology, according to the parish’s pastor, for whom Tooker presented early sketches to ensure he was on the right track theologically.

The triptych, for instance, shows people receiving such sacraments as baptism, holy orders (this one depicts a man kneeling before the crucified Jesus) or reconciliation. The people receiving the sacraments are pointing to the work’s center panel, which is the sacrament of the Eucharist as the host is being raised at the moment of consecration. The symbolism that the Church is oriented toward and draws its life from the Eucharist is unmistakable.

The George Tooker exhibit runs through April 5 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Here is an excellent review of the show when it was in Washington, DC last year.

The experience is worth the trip into center city. And because the Academy doesn’t draw the big crowds, you can linger on the stunning pieces in the Tooker show. Enjoy.